Patriotism and Nationalism

May 29, 2005
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

"I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear," wrote Walt Whitman.

I hear America singing, and I have been excited all my life by America' s thrilling song. I am a second-generation American woman, three–out-of-four of whose grandparents all got on various boats from Eastern Europe and came here through Ellis Island.
Russia. Romania. Czechoslovakia.

This morning' s sermon is a personal reflection, a series of snapshots, from my own patriot' s heart.

So, a snapshot from my youth:

My father is sitting at the dinner table, chewing his food. It is quiet. I can hear his jaw popping. "What' s that noise, Dad?" He tells me that he was shot in the war, in Korea, and that since his injury he has always had that popping sound when he chews. My mother pulls me aside later to tell me that "Daddy doesn' t like to talk about the war." Later, nearing my teen years, I try to get him to talk about it. "There' s nothing to say," he says, as I am nestled under his arm on the couch in the den. He thought the war was pointless and although he doesn' t say it, I get the impression that he is ashamed of having served in Korea rather than in WWII. He tells me that when he was a kid and his own big brothers were off fighting in the Army, he would run around in his yard in Connecticut playing soldier. Every time a plane went by overhead, he scrambled down a foxhole that he dug. "I got myself so that I was really into it," he says. "I was absolutely convinced that every plane was the enemy."

My father' s older brothers speak of their service in WWII with great pride and a palpable sorrow. My Uncle Marvin, an Army colonel and West Point graduate, commands the highest respect in the family. In second or third grade I think I would like to go to West Point.

It is 1976, and we are preparing for the enormous bicentennial concert in our elementary school, learning songs like "Fifty Nifty United States." I find out that I will not get to be a Southern Belle in the big pageant like my friend Shea Harden, so I will not get to wear a big hoop skirt. I am crushed. My music teacher, Daniel Hursey, pulls me aside, "You don' t want to be a Southern Belle. You want to be a Northern lady. Those women were tough. I need you to be from the North."

Our school takes a field trip to see the musical, "1776," which leaves me breathless. I fall madly in love with John Adams – a crush that is to last me my entire life – and I shock my teacher when I read several volumes of Mr. Adam' s diaries in preparation for a report. I am in the 4th grade. The 4th of July is my favorite holiday, and I cry when I hear the national anthem. I think to myself that it is a little bit strange to pledge allegiance to a flag, but I respect the power of the symbolism. I put my hand over my heart and pledge allegiance to the flag, and I try to be a good Girl Scout (but actually I am a lousy Girl Scout and I am asked to leave the troop. I am too rebellious and I talk back and my uniform is sloppy because my mother doesn' t know how to sew my badges on right. I come ill-equipped for the camping trips).

My father is the Police Commissioner in town. He is very devoted to law and order. He walks in every Memorial Day parade in the front row, in his navy blue suit, perfectly in step, with perfect, proud posture the whole way. I walk with my Girl Scout troop (before I am kicked out).

My father runs the Carter presidential campaign in Fairfield County, and there is an intense Democrat/Republican rivalry at school. All the children affiliate as their parents affiliate.

Eventually, I finish my secondary schooling and go off to college. I just assume that after I graduate, I will have access to good jobs, to affordable housing in a nice neighborhood, complete health insurance, access to the full range of reproductive health choices should I ever need them, and social security when I retire. I think of these things not as the benefits of a privileged citizen living in a wealthy country, but pretty much as a right. And speaking of right, the religious right is beginning its tremendous rise to success, but I feel certain that the more moderate among them will prevail, and that although Republicans and Democrats and Green Party and Independent Americans will have serious disagreements, we will all do so in a civil manner: we all acknowledge we love our country, we cherish its basic premise of freedom, liberty and justice for all, and we will abide by the Constitution. There will be total freedom of speech, there will be total freedom to worship and organize and protest as we choose, there will be a dignified and obvious separation of church and state, and we will revere the welcoming beacon of Lady Liberty, who holds her torch aloft in the New York harbor and says, in the immortal words of poet Emma Lazarus,

"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
--" The New Colossus"

My great grandparents and my grandparents and my mother and father knew that to previous generations of Americans, we were the wretched refuse of the teeming shore. They urged hard work, sacrifice, and education, education, education to take full advantage of the glories of this free land. They urged love of country, love of liberty, love and pride in America. They thought that the highest possible virtue of great America was its promise of freedom to all people: intellectual and religious freedom, freedom from pogroms, from forced conversions, and from a life of hopeless servitude to the ruling classes, a slavery inscribed by insurmountable class differences.

So I am a patriot. I was raised to be. And in all the disagreements I have ever had about the future of this country, about how to best use our great resources, wealth and power, it has never occurred to me to doubt that the people with whom I am arguing or disagreeing are not also patriotic, or that my own essential patriotism would be called into question.

Snapshot. It is 2005, four years after a hideous terrorist attack has been committed against the United States by fanatical Muslims from several nations. My country feels bitterly divided, angry and frightened, shouting across partisan lines with hoarse voices. The lines between patriotism and nationalism blur, as collective American pain and rage drives many to adopt a "my country right or wrong" mentality, and to brand those who criticize leaders as enemies or even terrorists. Those criticized amp up their own rhetoric, demonizing and insulting the basic intelligence and even the sanity of those whose policies they abhor. Name-calling is common from all directions. The terrorists--those who are left alive to observe us from the shadows-- can only be pleased by their accomplishment; to have caused a sense of national paranoia and anxiety that has caused America great anguish and cost us so very much more than our 3000 or so dead.

Snapshot. As I drive up to Medford, MA to participate in Patriots Day celebrations, I count dozens of American flags on cars. Many also sport yellow "support our troops" ribbons, as the country has been at war in Iraq for two years. There are campaign stickers on many cars, although the presidential election is long over. I think about the so-called right and left in my country today and how different it is from when I was a child, and I wonder if I was just naïve then, or if times have really changed. Americans seem to be fighting each other at such a deeper level than ever before in my memory (which admittedly, is not a very long memory). At stake is not just policy and direction, but the very notion of what is American, who gets to call themselves a loyal American, who gets to claim the title "patriot" for themselves… and who does not.

Part of this new tremendous tension has to do with religion, and how God – both the word and idea – is being pulled around, invoked, abused, thrown into the faces of others, and used as a shield and a justification by all manner of people. As one who grew up believing in the power of the individual person' s struggle and story, I am sorry that so much rhetoric makes monumental, even cosmic claims: what God wants, or whom God supports. People so rarely speak from the "I" now, – the place of honesty and experience, and a place of intimate trust and relationship. If only people would be willing to share how their personal experiences give rise to their convictions, I feel certain we could forge better, more respectful partnerships and coalitions to solve the problems we all can agree we do care about together. This is not starry-eyed idealism. It comes from experience with human beings both in groups and as individuals. And it comes from a religious concern for blasphemy and for idolatry, which are two sins that can so easily arise out of the notion that any one people knows the mind of the mysterium tremendum, or that any one people has favor with the ultimate Ground and Source of Being.

I think about the religious rhetoric of the ultra-conservative Christians in public leadership today, who truly believe that our forefathers envisioned America as a Christian nation, and thus feel justified in promoting a theocratic vision of American life and government. They seem almost to willfully misunderstand the purpose of the non-establishment clause of the Constitution, and to be not at all acquainted with the Christianity of the nation' s founders, which was in some cases Deistic, in all cases greatly informed by rationalistic Enlightenment values, and which was characterized by humility, a sense of awe before a great unknowable Deity, and by a sense of mutual obligation and sacrifice.

I see a bumper sticker I have never seen before. It features a big waving American flag in the background and it says, "Don' t agree with me? Well FLAG, FLAG, FLAG, FLAG, FLAG!"

It takes me a moment to get the message: we' re hiding behind flags instead of having real conversations and important debates. I honk at the driver and give him a "thumbs up." He waves back. I don' t know whether or not he sees the message on the back of my own car, which is, "God Bless the whole world, no exceptions."

When I arrive in Medford, I park and walk to the cemetery for the invocation before the arrival of Paul Revere. My friend Hank Peirce, the UU minister in Medford, is giving the prayer. I bow my head and listen. How will he handle this occasion? This is what he says:

Let us open our hearts in prayer.
We gather today, spirit of abundant life, as grateful children,
delighted and humbled by our bounty.
We lift up our hearts in gratitude for the wise and good who have gone before us,
who have struggled even unto death to establish,
equity, justice and good will upon the earth.
Let us strive to be worthy to stand in their place in the time of given to us, that with resolute courage and unwavering hope we may fulfill the task put into our hands.

On this sacred day in our history when we remember those whom we call patriots,
We stand here before so great a cloud of witness, on this sacred soil of Medford,
which bears the bodies of its early settlers.
We bow our heads here before the markers that bear famous names,
names that have become almost common-place to us,
we also acknowledge the graves of those soldiers who left their homes in NH to fight for freedom and never returned.

We pray for our military personnel, separated from family and loved ones.
Care for them; meet their needs.
Grant them courage, compassion, strength, and all they need for the living of these days.
Sustain them through their every trial,
remind them of the humanity they share even with those who are called "the enemy."

Great mystery of life we seek blessings upon our political leaders here in Medford as well as those in our state and nation' s capital.
We ask that they be tempered in their duties by being reminded of the ancient adage that what God requires of us is to walk humbly, love mercy and show respect and tolerance for all whom they serve, never forgetting the virtues and values that those whom we recognize today, fought and died for.

We are thankful for all those who now call our city home.
We are a city of people from lands far and wide who now grace the city of Medford with their presence and who have become a blessing to our municipality.
May we never forget that all that our nation has become
all started here.

In the name of all that is Sacred and Good
Let us say Amen.

I think it is a wonderful invocation, patriotic without being nationalistic. I watch a Paul Revere re-enactor ride up on his horse to warn the townspeople and the militia of the coming British forces as he did on April 18, 1775, and then I drive off to Lexington to see more of how Massachusetts celebrates Patriots Day. The first thing I see when I reach town limits is a few dozen re-enactors tumbling off a bus dressed in full "redcoat" gear, and holstering rifles to their shoulders to begin the several miles' march to the Lexington Green (I guess it wouldn' t have made much of a dramatic impact if they had been dropped off right in town. "The British are coming! The British are coming! They' re on a big yellow school bus!").

And then I see the tanks. I am taken aback, first because the sight of the tanks is so anachronistic: I thought we were in the 18th century!! And then because I consider that, for many Americans, their first definition of patriotism is connected to pride in being the great military superpower in the world, and that my patriotism is first and foremost centered on the moral grandeur of our constitution. I park at the Unitarian church and walk to the town green where there are thousands of people milling around. A band plays the national anthem and I find I am the only one in my immediate area who knows all the words, and we all strain to reach the high note.

A man next to me has a four-year old daughter who asks about the song. He explains the story to her: how Francis Scott Key watched the British bombardment of Fort McHenry in 1814, and how the stars and stripes – the flag of our brand-new nation – was still miraculously waving in the morning. I tell the little girl that I used to live near Fort McHenry, and that Francis Scott Key set his words to an old British hymn, "Anacreon in Heaven." Her father and I agree that we are really more "America the Beautiful" Americans than "The Star-Spangled Banner" Americans; although we love our national anthem for its drama, we prefer the anthem that emphasizes the richness and beauty of the land we live on, amber waves of grain, purple mountain majesty above the fruited plain.

We are grandchildren of immigrants and both recognize that this land was bought by the blood of American Indians and of the European settlers who fought bitterly to claim it, to expand their sovereignty westward-- ironically and tragically establishing the greatest democracy of the modern age upon the grave of its original, violently annihilated and assimilated inhabitants. "What a country," we say. We love it terribly much, and we worry about it. We want it to be shining among nations. We want America' s goodness to be not only for its people, but among its people, and we fervently wish that its goodness, wealth and might may bless many beyond its borders, and for many generations to come.

I tell Sophie, the child, that her name means "Divine Wisdom." "Sophie," I tell her, "When you wave that flag, remember that this is a democracy. That means that you need to think of this country as your country, and help lead it. That' s what that flag means. It means that we don' t have kings and queens here, we have people who are all equal. And that when we ideas about how things could be better, we tell them to our leaders, who work for us. You remember that. That flag is a symbol of courage. You have to be courageous to be an American. You have to speak up."

Sophie seems to be listening intently to me, but then she looks at her father. "Daddy, can we get some cotton candy?"

And they go off across the street together, past the redcoats and the fife and drum corps, and the marching Daughters of the American Revolution, and the boy scouts and the girl scouts, and the tanks. It is a beautiful day, and the flag waves in the breeze.

America, America, God shed His grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood,
From sea to shining sea.

Closing Hymn "We Would Be One" #318
Cheered by our community, blessed by our covenant, uplifted in mind, and renewed in spirit, go forth with courage and in peace to meet the days to come. Amen.